The News Rundown
- We’ve been talking a lot about the origins of the Wuhan coronavirus and whether or not it potentially leaked from a lab in Wuhan China.
- Two weeks ago we talked about whether or not the virus could have leaked from one of the labs in Wuhan that researches corona viruses.
- Since then this has moved from the opinion realm to all but being confirmed by United States intelligence officials. This was a story highlighted on Fox News, the Washington Post, CNN, and even here at CTV in Canada.
- As this becomes more and more likely, reporting was done this week by Rebel News showing that the Trudeau government gave a $828,046 grant to Dr. Le Xiaochun at the University of Alberta in collaboration with the Wuhan Institute of Virology back in February.
- The grant says, “The collaborative research is conducted by a multi-disciplinary team of virologists, chemists, infectious disease specialists, front-line practitioners, and public health researchers from the University of Alberta, Canadian Food Inspection Agency, and Wuhan Institute of Virology (China)”
- This was part of a $27M investment from the Government of Canada in coronavirus research.
- The announcement was made on February 10, back when we were still following instructions from the World Health Organization and filtering in flights from China while they were the epicentre.
- You would expect a story like this to be front page news but it’s not.
- Opinion pieces in the Globe and Mail and Toronto Sun did pick up this story after The Rebel broke it. Here at Western Context we believe Canadians deserve to know where their taxpayer money is being spent.
- The University of Alberta researcher and his team will develop the tools with the Canadian Food Inspection agency and then the testing would be done at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
- While funding and samples won’t be shared, knowledge will be shared between the institutions in question.
- Conservative MP Garnett Genuis said that he’s concerned about the risks associated with partnerships between Canadian universities and Chinese government controlled entities and that China’s conduct should give pause on co-operating with research projects in China.
- Former Liberal cabinet minister Irwin Cotler has accused China of keeping information about the pandemic from the public at a crucial early stage and cited a study by the University of Southampton in Britain that suggests 95% of infections could have been avoided if Beijing had acted three weeks earlier.
- Scientific progress has led to some of the greatest advancements in the last 100 years. Science is important, following rigorous guidelines is important to research quality, and information sharing is indeed important.
- Canada should be investing in R&D on this virus and potential avenues for a cure.
- But the question comes up, how closely should we be working with what amounts to be an entity of the Chinese government since all educational institutions in China have close ties to the government.
- As cities deal with changing policies intended to curb the spread of the pandemic, it's become clear to anyone watching the news that governments are struggling to maintain the line between helpful policies like physical distancing and going completely overboard. Later we'll talk of the federal government's struggles with this, but for now we'll talk about a local city's response, specifically Victoria.
- Victoria's mayor Lisa Helps and her city council, specifically renegade socialist Ben Isitt, tend to make the news for all the wrong reasons, and once again they appear to have done so in regard to trying to help the homeless population of Victoria deal with a possible spread of coronavirus.
- Helps wants the B.C. government to use its emergency powers to requisition empty hotel and motel rooms for people without homes during the COVID-19 outbreak.
- In a motion going to committee of the whole today, Helps and councillors Sarah Potts and Jeremy Loveday urge the province to take immediate action to get people off the streets or, failing that, to allow the city to declare a local state of emergency.
- Helps told reporters Wednesday that the city has “hit a wall” after working hard on the issue with B.C. Housing and Island Health for the past month.
- She said B.C. Housing requires increased powers to secure the rooms, while Island Health needs more resources to provide supports to people once they move off the street.
- “It is absolutely naive to think that COVID-19 will not hit the unsheltered population in our city, and when it does, those people are going to be using the same hospital beds and acute-care beds that everybody else will,” she said.
- Shelters were forced to reduce their numbers to allow for physical-distancing, so now people with mental-health and addiction challenges are living in more than 120 tents crowded together on Pandora Avenue, an area in Victoria known for its transient population. Meanwhile, the city has established a temporary tenting site at Topaz Park, a park just on the edge of Victoria's city limits, which is now at capacity.
- Topaz Park sits a block away from the Saanich-Victoria border at Tolmie Avenue. The Saanich Police Department has also noted a general increase in property-related crimes — up by 30% from March 13 to April 15 when compared to the same period in 2019.
- “Over the past month, Saanich police have investigated a significant increase in property related crimes such as break and enters to businesses, underground parking garages, and thefts from motor vehicles. We have taken measures by allocating resources to assist in both preventing and investigating these types of criminal activities in Saanich,” said Markus Anastasiades, public information and communications officer with the Saanich Police Department.
- “Maybe the province should issue an order to all motel owners noting that they must make their facilities available to B.C. Housing for whatever purpose B.C. Housing deems necessary. I don’t care how it happens, just get people inside.”
- The mayor states that although the city and B.C. Housing have secured nearly 200 hotel rooms for people without homes, hotel owners have made it clear that they don’t want people with mental-health and addiction problems staying in them.
- Coun. Geoff Young opposed the council's motion, arguing that previous efforts to move people off the street have led to problems, even in buildings that were managed and staffed at significant cost.
- “As a result, many of those rooms were left empty, simply because the people who were living in them were not able to manage their own affairs in a way that was reasonable.”
- Young said there are additional concerns about the impact on surrounding neighbourhoods. “And we know from the communications we’ve had over years that we’re way short of achieving that level of management.”
- According to Cameron MacIntyre, spokesperson for VicPD, since March 15 VicPD is reporting a 126 per cent increase in calls near Topaz Park. Most calls are related to public disorder, which MacIntyre says could include anything from unwanted persons, panhandlers, people intoxicated in public, fights and drug-related calls such as open-air drug use. MacIntyre said they’ve seen a 260 per cent increase in public disorder service calls in that area as well in the same time period.
- The request was also a surprise for hotel operators. Bill Lewis, the chairman of the Hotel Association of Greater Victoria said that hotel operators were 'caught off guard with the request': "For the most part, every hotelier I spoke to yesterday had no idea this was coming and wasn't consulted.''
- The hotels are still trying to operate and asking them to house the homeless would place more stress on staff, he said. "I think there's a huge question mark on how you would house homeless people in buildings that are still housing the general public and employing people who have no training or experience dealing with the homeless community.''
- For one thing, the association questions whether a traditional hotel setting is the right place for people without homes, given the extensive health and social supports many of them will require.
- Safety and security of staff is also a concern, he said. “We’re not in the nature of dealing with that clientele.”
- As well, many hotels and motels are still open and trying to generate revenue from essential travel in order to keep people employed, he said. “We don’t believe that forcing homeless people into hotel rooms, in hotels that are open to the public, is a solution or a viable solution for both the homeless people and the safety and security of the staff and the buildings themselves.”
- B.C.’s Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing issued a statement that did not directly address the issue of using emergency powers to requisition hotel and motel rooms. Instead, the ministry said B.C. Housing continues to negotiate with motels and hotels to secure more spaces and expects to finalize additional contracts in the coming weeks.
- The ministry added that it’s trying to find a site for an emergency-response centre that will provide more spaces: “Once a site has been secured, we’ll work with Island Health and our partners to identify and assess potential residents.”
- One thing is for sure, the government forcing hotels to house homeless people, when in many cases are still trying to operate and keep costs low and staff employed, would not be the right decision. It's another case of Helps trying to overstep her boundaries as a municipal mayor, when it's up to the provincial government. Questions remain about who would pay the bill for damages or cleaning up a room if a homeless persons' stay is not as harmonious as Helps would have us believe, which is an angle that the local BC media missed entirely.
- On Friday the federal government issued a $1.7b aid package for the oil industry.
- Some were hoping for a bailout and capital but instead the federal government earmarked the money to clean up orphaned and abandoned oil and gas wells.
- The government will also provide $750m to help companies reduce greenhouse gas emissions, in particular methane.
- There was the talk of the program as well providing an unspecified sum to medium sized energy companies to provide liquidity and capital.
- In responding to this package while also highlighting past bailouts to the auto and banking sectors, the Premier said, “More support is needed to deal with the crisis in Canada’s energy sector, but this is a great first step. Our energy sector is facing its biggest challenge ever, and we need to be sure that industry can access the capital it needs to survive and thrive in future years.”
- The Alberta government estimates that the industry will require $15-$30b in additional credit and liquidity so companies can survive.
- Most industry executives are hoping that this is the first round because as it is, this won’t be a game changer to the industry and won’t “do anything” as Whitecap Resources CEO Grant Fagerheim said.
- An official in the office of Natural Resources Minister Seamus O’Regan said no firm decision had been made about whether oil-specific repayable loans would be made available.
- This of course means that the government isn’t at the thinking stage yet on whether or not a more widespread bailout will be made available.
- In total the aid package for the self induced COVID-recession and possibly depression already totals $73b.
- $1.7b is a drop in the bucket and frankly insulting.
- Trudeau feels that this money will maintain 5,200 jobs while the oil and gas sector, prior to this recession, lost tens of thousands of jobs in 2019.
- Going back to the Premier, he’s even aware that this isn’t enough going forward. In his press release on the matter he said, “We are grateful for this job-creating initiative, and we will continue to work with the federal government until the energy sector has what it needs to survive and thrive for the benefit of all Canadians.”
- A couple weeks back it was thought that the federal government was considering a $15b aid package and that it would be made available within days.
- But that never materialized in any form and instead after that a coalition of 84 environmental advocacy groups sent a letter to the Prime Minister asking him to reconsider.
- And this wouldn’t be the first, there has been a barrage of green NGOs and activist groups seizing on this downturn and self-brought-on economic slowdown to use this as an opportunity to go green faster than ever before.
- This is what the industry is up against and has been up against for years. Bad policy, a bad investment climate, a government that wants to phase out the oil industry, and green groups on all sides eager for a shutdown at any cost.
- The industry and province sees this as a good start, more than an appetizer, and not absolutely nothing. But the question is, will the federal government deliver a full meal deal, and what will that look like?
- Earlier we talked about Victoria's overbearing way of dealing with the pandemic, now let's talk about the federal government’s response.
- The federal government is considering introducing legislation to make it an offence to knowingly spread misinformation that could harm people, says Privy Council President Dominic LeBlanc.
- LeBlanc said he is interested in British Conservative MP Damian Collins's call for laws to punish those responsible for spreading dangerous misinformation online about the COVID-19 pandemic. LeBlanc said he has discussed the matter already with other cabinet ministers, including Justice Minister David Lametti. If the government decides to follow through, he said, it could take a while to draft legislation.
- "Legislatures and Parliaments are meeting scarcely because of the current context of the pandemic, so it's not a quick solution, but it's certainly something that we would be open [to] as a government," said LeBlanc.
- Last week, the Canadian Heritage department announced $3 million in grants to eight groups across the country to combat "false and misleading COVID-19 information."
- Health Canada has the lead on monitoring for misinformation. For example, it is sending compliance letters to companies it finds making false or questionable claims about COVID-19.
- "It's really the Public Health Agency of Canada and Health Canada that have been, amongst other things, identifying as best as possible some of the more flagrant examples of misinformation, disinformation," said LeBlanc.
- NDP MP Charlie Angus said he would support legislation to fight online misinformation: "Extraordinary times require extraordinary measures and it is about protecting the public. This is not a question of freedom of speech. This is a question of people who are actually actively working to spread disinformation, whether it's through troll bot farms, whether [it's] state operators or whether it's really conspiracy theorist cranks who seem to get their kicks out of creating havoc."
- The thing is, it's absolutely a question of freedom of speech. Realizing that the people running the country believe that freedom of speech doesn’t apply, even as a consideration, in cases where they don’t like the speech in question, it’s scary, especially in the middle of a frightening crisis that makes government power grabs seem deceptively innocuous.
- It sounds great to crack down on dangerous “cranks” pushing “disinformation.” Until you realize that a couple of months ago, anyone who was suggesting COVID-19 could and would spread through community transmission here — a notion Canadian public health leaders were scoffing at — would have been considered such a “crank.” Just a couple of weeks ago, anyone stating that wearing a mask in public was useful in stopping the spread of COVID-19 would also have been deemed a crackpot by the feds’ standards. Thankfully Mr. LeBlanc hadn’t yet come up with a law that would have shut them up.
- As we have seen with this pandemic, the government doesn’t have a monopoly on the truth — it’s barely competent enough to recognize the truth when the truth is hitting it on the head. Do you really want that entity to have the power to decide which ideas about COVID-19 are valid and may be voiced and which ones are wrong and must be punished?
- It’s not necessary to imagine, in the abstract, what sort of damage this kind of censorship would do. The scenario has already played out in China. In December 2019, ophthalmologist Li Wenliang tried to sound the alarm in China about a mysterious new virus that was causing SARS-like symptoms. Within days, he was picked up by police and reprimanded for “making false comments on the Internet.” He died of COVID-19 six weeks later.
- A recent study showed that a day after Chinese doctors issued their warning about the illness, China’s most widely used social media app, WeChat, quickly blacklisted related terms, including “SARS outbreak in Wuhan” and “Unknown Wuhan pneumonia.” While the deadly disease was spreading through China’s Hubei province, WeChat was censoring instructions and advice about wearing face masks and washing hands — information that would have saved lives but was deemed fake news by Chinese authorities at the time.
- The federal government, despite 2013 Trudeau admiring China because they can "turn their economy around on a dime", should not be taking censorship lessons from China.
- Opposition Leader Andrew Scheer criticized the idea of using legislation to curb misinformation: "We're concerned when this government starts talking about free speech issues. They've got a terrible history over the past few years of proposing ideas that would infringe upon free speech. Any time this government starts talking about regulating what people can say and not say, we start off the conversation with a great deal of healthy skepticism," Scheer added, pointing out that the government has changed its pandemic messaging on travel restrictions and the use of masks.
- It is true that there are scammers out there taking advantage of the fear generated by the pandemic, trying to make a buck by posing as people or institutions they aren’t. But it is also true that there are already laws on the books to punish and prevent this foul flavour of fraud.
- Don’t add on a new law that will leave skeptics — a group that has grown in number as the government’s flubbed response to COVID-19 has become evident — even more distrustful of government than they already are.
- This is a matter of free speech. And during a pandemic, free speech and the unimpeded flow of information can mean the difference between life and death. Let’s hope the federal government finds safer ways to keep itself busy.
Word of the Week
Conspiracy - a secret plan by a group to do something unlawful or harmful.
How to Find Us
Episode Title: Going Too Far
Teaser: Trudeau gives money to the Wuhan lab for research, Victoria mayor Helps wants to put homeless into hotels, and the energy sector is still waiting on money to stay afloat. Also, the federal government wants a new law to restrict freedom of speech.
Recorded Date: April 18, 2020
Release Date: April 19, 2020
Edit Notes: None
Podcast Summary Notes